Middle East

White Flag Over Iraq

As intellectuals surrender, the military thinks on.


For a long time and until 2003, the Iraqi writer Kanan Makiya was a critical filter through which supporters of war in Iraq channeled their most potent arguments in favor of an invasion. Makiya's obsessive plea for the removal of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship on moral grounds, his credibility gained from publishing books on the foulest effects of the tyranny in Iraq, earned him considerable influence in American political and intellectual circles—if also malicious animosity from those opposed to the Bush administration's ambitions in the Middle East.

Now, the situation has been mostly reversed. Makiya is struggling to determine if he was initially right in backing an American war to overthrow the Ba'ath regime, and his torment is being plundered by those making the case that war was a bad idea. In the New York Times magazine this past Sunday, Dexter Filkins wrote a profile of Makiya in a similar vein. One particular exchange caught by Filkins has Makiya capitulating even to his most depraved critics.

"People say to me, 'Kanan, this is ridiculous, democracy in Iraq, a complete pipe dream,'" Makiya said when I visited him one day. "That's realism."

He got up from his chair and walked to a window.

"You know, in a way, the realists are right, they are always right. Even when they are morally wrong."

Makiya was already expressing growing doubts early last year. For example, in April 2006 he told reason that he had been wrong in a number of his assessments of Iraq. However, Makiya still expected that "in the long run history will judge this to have been a morally just war, one that will in time produce a better Iraq than the one ruled over by the Ba'ath Party." He added that in the prewar period, "[t]o just leave the situation to fester, as the Arab world and Europe seemed to want to do, was in my opinion more immoral than regime change, however badly this was handled by the United States government and the new class of Iraqi politicians who today rule over Iraq."

Yet Makiya's conclusion that the realists were always right happened to represent the utter collapse of opinions he had previously defended. The reason is that when it came to pre-2003 Iraq, the realists were not only morally wrong, they were politically wrong as well. It was the realists who in the late 1980s imagined that Saddam could be a force for stability in the Middle East—someone who might even consider entering into some negotiating process with Israel. It was the realists who looked the other way in 1988 when Saddam unleashed the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds, which played so essential a role in convincing him that the West would tolerate his worst abuses. And it was the realists who were caught with their pants down before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, imagining that Saddam was only bluffing in his quarrel with the Kuwaitis.

Similarly, it was the realists during the Clinton years who, as Makiya observed, allowed the situation in Iraq to fester, so that the Iraqi population suffered terrible hardship under United Nations sanctions. Saddam further tightened his hold over his people during that time, while growing fat thanks to the corruptions of the oil-for-food program.

There is much to admire in forensic self-doubt, but in giving his ideological adversaries credit they don't deserve, Makiya is overdoing things. On the realists' watch, Iraq was no less the monumental catastrophe that it is today; it fact it was a catastrophe that largely made possible the catastrophe of today. The difference then was that Iraqis were bludgeoned into silence—stability being shorthand for mass intimidation.

In moments of self-doubt, Makiya should reread the second half of his brilliant Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising, and the Arab World, a withering denunciation of Arab intellectuals who, by action or omission, somehow sustained the Ba'athist regime and gave it legitimacy. As Makiya wrote: "I am aware of no community of Arab intellectuals, however small, that could make a meaningful political distinction between the interests of the suffering people of Iraq, who had just lost a whole generation in eight years of grueling warfare with Iran, and the tyrant, who was sacrificing them on the altar of yet another adventure."

In endorsing that artificial unity between leader and society, many Arab writers and commentators not only reinforced the intellectual scaffolding of the totalitarian Iraqi system, they also echoed an essentially realist approach to foreign policy that judges other societies from the vantage point of power relations—therefore views them mainly through the prism of the interests of their political elites and regimes. Makiya would do well to remember how that implicit alliance—between a class of complicit publicists and of ethically indifferent policy-makers—has been instrumental in extending the lives of numerous dictatorships.

However, Makiya reflects only one side of the story. The intellectuals and commentators on the other side, for whom Iraq was always going to be a letdown, can take pleasure in seeing their predictions proven correct. However, many of them displayed less moral and political clarity than Makiya on what should have been done with Saddam; and remain as lost as he in determining what to do next in Iraq. In the debate over the war, intellectuals have become increasingly irrelevant in shaping policy outcomes. But why blame them? Even in Congress, those opposed to the administration's Iraq policy have offered no viable alternatives, as was plain last month after Gen. David Petraeus' congressional testimony.

Ironically, the real debate over ideas when it comes to Iraq appears to be taking place in the one institution generally (and unfairly) considered a graveyard for lateral thinking: the U.S. military. If there is a community of people that has tried to grasp the reality of Iraq in practical ways, in all its complexities, and that has climbed the steepest of learning curves in the past four years, it is the armed forces. That's not to say that soldiers are or should be a model for how all Americans approach Iraq; but in its quest to understand the conflict environment better, the military has had to immerse itself in the sociology of Iraq like no other. And because of that, its intense discussions of the war, by rarely descending into flagellation or self-flagellation, remain alive with opportunity. The topic remains Iraq, not parochial American disputation over Iraq.

In his book Colossus, historian Niall Ferguson wrote that America's defeat in Vietnam showed that "[o]n balance, Americans preferred the irresponsibilities of weakness" to the "responsibilities of power." America will not achieve victory in the foreseeable future in Iraq, if it ever does. But embracing weakness would be irresponsible not only toward America itself but toward Iraqis as well. Members of the military have been trained to avoid the irresponsibilities of weakness. That is precisely why their conversations today are so much more interesting than those of the disoriented intellectuals on either side of the Iraq divide.

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.